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It’s an emotive concept – a queen pregnant with the hope of a nation, only to have it shrink away to nothing. Mary I’s phantom pregnancy of 1555 provides the evocative subject for all-male ensemble Gallicantus’s latest release, offering a new narrative angle on familiar works by Tallis, Tye and Sheppard and a hook for less well-known music by William Mundy, Anthony Newman and Philip van Wilder.
It’s a clever concept and one meticulously, if occasionally rather optimistically, documented in the album’s unattributed booklet-notes, which make valiant attempts to tie each work back to 1555. At its best it allows Gallicantus to extend their reach beyond sacred motets, setting up frictions and unexpected harmonies between these and secular works such as Tallis’s delicate part-songs ‘Like as the doleful dove’ and ‘When shall my sorrowful sighing slack’ (deftly sung by Gabriel Crouch and Mark Chambers respectively), and Newman’s tiny lute fantasia Fansye (Elizabeth Kenny), mirroring the 16th century’s own blurred lines between sacred and secular worlds.
The addition of soprano Zoë Brookshaw allows the ensemble greater textural variety and flexibility, making something rapt and cooly beautiful of Tye’s Peccavimus cum patribus. Her delayed entry musically lifts eyes heavenwards, leavening the darker shades of Tallis’s Loquebantur variis linguis and Sheppard’s Libera nos, which both sit here at a strikingly low pitch. It’s an effect that works better for the Sheppard – grasping out of the depths for salvation – than it does for Tallis’s urgent Pentecostal Babel, which inevitably loses some of its glinting brilliance in the two duelling upper parts.
Gallicantus still have one of the airiest and most malleable sounds around, translucent through the vocal texture. Allied to performances minutely responsive to rhetorical and musical gestures, it makes a strong case for these performances, even for listeners wedded to a treble line.
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